Saturday, May 03, 2008

Pakistan and army: a changing relationship?

VIEW: Pakistan and army: a changing relationship? — Shuja Nawaz
Daily Times, May 4, 2008

Pakistan has been under direct or indirect military rule for over 38 years of its 60 years as an independent country. Both the size and nature of the Pakistan Army have a huge impact on the country’s economy and society.

Rising from a relatively small force at independence in 1947, Pakistan today has an army of around 800,000 plus, including over 550,000 regular army and the rest as reserves. It is larger than the regular army of the United States. It increased its force size even after losing half the country in 1971 with the independence of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan).

In the process, Pakistan’s security threat from India grew, forcing it to meet India’s rapid growth of military might; the appearance of the Soviet armed forces in Afghanistan to its west in the 1980s further propelled its expansion.

The army and the armed forces in general remain a key element in Pakistan’s polity. They are well entrenched and powerful and have moved to fill whatever power vacuum or gap that they see. While, unlike the Turkish army, they do not have any constitutional role in the country’s polity, they have crafted a role for themselves and equipped themselves to tackle whatever problems they face, sometimes without an invitation from the government. This has created an inherently unstable system over time.

In essence, Pakistan’s 60-year history reflects a struggle between the coercive power of the army and the civil authority of the state represented by successive governments. As a result, Pakistan’s history is one of conflict between an underdeveloped political system and a well-organised army that grew in numbers and political strength as a counterweight to a hostile India next door and in relation to the domestic political system.

“Whenever there is a breakdown in...stability, as has happened frequently in Pakistan, the military translates its potential into the will to dominate, and we have military intervention followed by military rule,” states former army chief General Jehangir Karamat. “But,” he states, “As far as the track record of the military as rulers in the past is concerned, I am afraid it is not much better than the civilians.”

An examination of the historical record of the Pakistan Army in my new book Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford University Press 2008) yields a number of major themes over time:

The Pakistan Army today reflects Pakistani society more than at any time in its history. Increasingly it is going to be based on urban recruitment, especially of its officer corps, and the pool of recruits will come from bigger towns and cities in areas other than its traditional recruitment ground in the Potohar Plateau of northern Punjab.

Internally weak political parties, tied to individual personalities or brought together by temporary and short-sighted common interests, have turned to involve the army in political affairs, only to later lament its active role and taking over of the reins of power.

The army has gradually acquired a corporate structure and identity that appears to trump broader national interests. It tends to act autonomously in foreign dealings, particularly with the Middle East and the United States. Under General Pervez Musharraf it further penetrated the civilian sector and now controls large segments of civil administration. And, it has a wide economic footprint that goes well beyond the welfare needs of its ex-servicemen and women and made the army a part of the broader national Culture of Entitlement that provides preferred and heavily subsidised access to state resources.

Increasingly, the central decision-making on political issues in the Musharraf regime involved the corps commanders and the army chief. The newly instituted National Security Council gives the army and the other armed services a formal role in national policy making that was not envisaged by Pakistan’s founders.

The important role of the army inside Pakistan has been given a boost by the US-Pakistan relationship. The United States has at various times given its strategic and often short-term foreign policy interests precedence over sustaining democracy in Pakistan by aligning with the army as a centre of power. It has been ready to deal with autocrats and dictators at the expense of fostering democracy. The powerful nexus between the US Department of Defence and the Pakistan Army has been a key element of this approach. Yet, whenever the crunch comes, the Pakistan Army acts in its own or national interest rather than bending to the dictates of its US partners.

The army has generally performed well in its primary task of defending the country against external threats but it has failed to gauge the political will of its own people, leading to the loss of half the country in 1971 and to ill-thought out and autonomously executed military adventures in 1948, 1965, 1971, and 1999 (Kargil). Its junior officers and soldiers rank among the best in the world, but its senior leadership has let down the lower echelons in each of its wars.

The army is facing a new operational challenge: fighting wars within Pakistan against shadowy insurgencies, rather than a conventional external force. It will need to retool its systems and thinking if it is to win this long war for the soul of Pakistan against the forces of religious militancy. For an increasingly conservative officer corps and soldiery, this will pose a difficult challenge.

Pakistan Army’s history also shows how it protects its corporate image and structure even against its own leadership when the leadership appears to be threatening the respect and operation of the army as an autonomous entity. It up-ended the Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan dictatorships when public discontent arose against the army. It also failed to follow up on the investigation of the death of General Ziaul Haq and was reluctant to investigate the suspicious death of General Asif Nawaz. Interestingly, when a civilian Prime Minister removed General Jehangir Karamat, the army, under its new chief General Pervez Musharraf took the change in its stride and rallied behind its new leader.

Related to the preceding theme is the selection and composition of the senior leadership of the Pakistan Army. It is a highly personalised system of selection in which the army chief plays a dominant role, and the longer a chief remains in power the more likely he is to promote compliant clones. This deprives the senior military leadership of the useful capacity of argument and debate in making decisions. I suggest a change in the structure of the army’s High Command to make it coup-proof.

Finally, Pakistan remains a key and strategically important country in a troubled region of the world, sitting as it does on the cusp of South Asia, Central Asia, and the Gulf. It also has nuclear arms, whose control and safeguarding remain key to the future stability of the region. For now the army has maintained effective control over the nuclear weapons. A recent Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IISS) report called the system of safeguards “robust”, based on concentric circles of defence. But that has not allayed concerns.

These are the broad themes that emerge from a historical analysis of the Pakistan Army at key junctures in the nation’s history, and they lay the ground for a re-examination of the army’s role in Pakistan’s polity and suggestions for change. The army remains a key player on the political scene and will not easily relinquish its hold on power. Whatever new structure emerges over time will have to take the army’s nature and role into consideration and bring it into the equation while increasing the role of the civil sector. The army’s leadership needs to be a willing participant in this effort to effect a smooth transition. Without such a shift, Pakistan’s search for nationhood and a stable political system may remain an elusive quest.

The good news is that the new military leadership under General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani appears willing to cede decision making to the elected politicians of the land and to return to its professional roots. But changing the expectations and habits of the senior military brass will take time and may well extend to General Kayani’s successor’s term, provided no exogenous shocks destabilise the system, forcing the army to revert to its politically activist ways.

Shuja Nawaz is a political and strategic analyst. His latest book Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within (Oxford University Press 2008) is available on the web and from leading booksellers worldwide. He can be reached at

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